In theory, that first year of college sounds great — no parents, no rules, no problems. In practice, the transition from high school to college can be a challenging period for many students. The freshmen year is a learning experience in ways that go way beyond the classroom. The Miami Herald’s summer interns, having successfully navigated the social and academic pressure of that first year, offer some pro tips on how to survive and thrive.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
School: California State University, Fullerton
Hometown: Huntington Beach, Calif.
Biggest challenge: I commuted to and from college all four years. That was very common at my school, but it limited my ability to have that typical “college experience” and in many ways made it harder to make friends at first. It also made it difficult to break away from my parents because I lived at home for the first few years. It was nice because I could save money since I was paying for school and had the luxury of eating home-cooked meals, but I always felt like I missed out on something that you only get to experience once.
Best advice: Use this opportunity to expand outside of your comfort zone. High school will seem light-years away the second you step foot on your college campus. Leave those years behind, they will mean very little once you start college. Explore new clubs, activities, intramural sports and conversations. Don’t get so consumed with the partying that you waste away your free time. Don’t worry about hunting out a relationship, that will come on its own. It was during my college years that I learned about the world for the first time, my place in it and how I wanted to contribute after graduation. I met a couple of my closest friends in college, and we have been a part of each other’s highs and lows ever since. Just trust yourself.
If I could do it again: I wouldn’t change a thing. It was awesome. Go be awesome.
School: University of Florida
Hometown: Coral Springs, Fla.
Biggest Challenge: Clap and say it with me: College. Is. Expensive! I hope you never experience the horror of receiving your financial aid late. At the same time, I had to pay for textbooks for the semester. And rent. And sustenance. You get the point. When this happens, you can’t always call mommy and daddy like they show you in the movies.
Instead, you figure it out on your own, and it will be a challenge, but you’ll be happily surprised by how much you can do without needing to call home. There was a wonderful assortment of surprise fees I didn’t anticipate. Want to join a sorority? An honor society? Exist? To be able to enjoy the more social side of college, I had to work to pay for these things myself, sometimes while also working 40 hours a week and managing a full course load.
Sometimes you will miss out on things. It won’t mean that you’re not having the full college experience, though I know sometimes it feels like that. I learned to be grateful, truly grateful, and stretch what I had. Also if you intend to drive, UF will ticket your car faster than you can do the gator chomp, and they aren’t cheap. You’ll find yourself crying in the rain while your car languishes in some parking lot with a gleaming yellow boot. Sniffle.
Best advice: Professors are paid to hang out in their office and give boneheads like you advice. Don’t let them get paid for nothing. Go. Ask for advice, ask for recommendation letters and shoot the breeze with them. One day, they’ll remember and turn your B into an A at the end of semester.
And while your adviser is useful, your older peers can give you a better angle. They’re the soldiers that have been on the ground and know the lay of the land. They can tell you which internships are real learning experiences and which are only useful if you want to master the art of making copies. If you join an organization with a mentorship program, you can get this advice a little more organically.
But mostly, don’t wait. Time will fly, and there’s so much you can do. Don’t wait to be involved in what you care about. Some opportunities may be for upperclassman, but you might be the lucky youngin’ they take a chance on.
If you could do it again: If you are thinking of rooming with people from your high school, scratch that thought. Push that thought into moving traffic — and then wash your hands. Because you know what’s nicer than clinging to people you already know? Meeting people who have no expectations.
After coming to college with a group of kids from my high school, I realized that some of our friendships were only based on things like the same lunch period. It seems shallow, but that’s how small my school was. I continued the bad habit, joining clubs I didn’t care about to stay with them and missing out on all the weirdly wonderful things I love.
I had to take a step back and ask myself what I wanted without thinking of who I wanted to be around. I wish I didn’t wait so long to step out of my comfort zone and explore myself at my own pace. It’s easy to be lonely on a huge campus, but it’s also easier to find other weirdos like yourself. Also, I could have lied and told everyone my name was Rihanna without old friends blowing my cover. Or Harambe. Now I’ll never know how it feels.
School: Yale University
Hometown: Oakland, Calif.
Biggest challenge: I was introverted in college and would rather read a book or go for drives to take photos of coastal erosion than go to big parties. Freshman year, this made me feel like I was missing out, but I learned not to worry about taking time for myself and then joining my friends later at smaller get-togethers. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet and spend time with people in other settings.
Best advice: Choose classes based on who’s teaching them. Ask other students about the best professors they’ve had, and try to visit classes or read a professor’s work when deciding. A killer syllabus is nothing without good teaching, but a stellar professor can make a standard class life-changing.
If you could do it again: I’d spend more time at home during the holidays and the summer. I didn’t know where I’d be living when I graduated college, and I ended up working on the other side of the country. If I knew I’d have only a few chances to visit my hometown and parents over the next three years, I would have gone back more often during college.
Emily L. Mahoney
School: Arizona State University
Hometown: Glendale, Ariz.
My biggest challenge: Striking a balance. When I was a freshman and sophomore, I let my friends steer my time. I spent all my daytime hours with them, which left only the wee hours of the morning to get my studies done. I was exhausted. Junior year, once I realized I wanted to finish my bachelor’s degree early, my life was consumed by schoolwork. My last year in school, as I finished my master’s, I finally figured out the balance between friends and work that I loved. And boy, was it a blast.
My best advice: Try everything (except drugs). You’re only in college once, and this is probably one of your last opportunities to learn that thing you’ve always been interested in, even it’s not related to your major. I took Arabic, fell in love with yoga and even joined a steel drum ensemble (complete with Hawaiian shirts). Then I tried investigative reporting, and now it’s my job.
If I could do it again: I’d have paid more attention to my mental health. Sometimes I let friends’ problems, schoolwork, social obligations, etc., pile up internally and stress me out to unhealthy proportions. And yes, college will always involve some degrees of personal neglect, but try to keep it to just eating too many slices of late-night pizza.
Samantha J. Gross
School: Boston University
Hometown: Schererville, Ind.
Biggest challenge: Honestly, finding time to sleep. When I joined my school paper, I was a bit too eager to take on every assignment I could get my hands on and put aside important things like classwork, eating full meals and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. I’ve since learned that you can do good work and “give your all” without literally giving all of yourself away.
Best advice: Make time to call your parents, grandparents or siblings! I found 10- or 15-minute blocks of time when I was walking between destinations on campus, so I always made sure to call at least one person to catch up. They appreciate hearing from you more than you may realize, and it definitely helps to stay in the loop. Put aside the headphones for a little while — your favorite podcast or the new Jay-Z album can wait.
If I could do it again: I would make more friends outside my major! Because of my involvement in my communications school, almost all of my friends were journalism, advertising or film majors. I love them dearly, but it is refreshing to talk to people who may have totally different interests. Some of the coolest people I met at BU studied topics like engineering, linguistics and theater, and I wish I would have developed those relationships further.
School: Spelman College
Biggest challenge: My biggest challenge was learning to live in the moment and not spend so much time worrying about the future or past. Soak up every minute of college because although the saying is cliche, it really is the best four years of your life.
Best advice: Although it is important to be social and involved, I would not compromise my career and academic endeavors to do so. My best advice is to stay focused on academic and career success no matter what. Have an academic goal that you want to achieve by graduation and continuously work toward it until it becomes a reality.
My academic goal was to graduate summa cum laude and make Phi Beta Kappa, so I shaped everything I did in college around achieving those goals and it happened. Never get deterred from achieving academic and career success, no matter any setbacks you might encounter.
If I could do it again: Spelman College was one of the best experiences of my life, and I don’t have many regrets about my time there. However, if I had to change anything, I would be fearlessly social and become more greatly involved in mentorship programs.
What I mean by fearlessly social is that I would have worked harder at mending broken friendships and nurturing friendships that were out of my comfort zone. In terms of mentorship, I was a resident assistant my sophomore year, which was a great experience, but I wish that I had also participated in the summer Peer Assistant Leadership program, where I could mentor incoming freshman.
The bottom line is that it is important to spend as much time as possible getting involved and fostering a network within your college community.